Francine Orr, Los Angeles Times (m2amukpd20120712233336/600 )
Vernon officials this week took the highly unusual step of changing the city's election rules during the middle of a disputed City Council race in a move that L.A. County's registrar of voters said could undermine the election process.
The City Council decision comes after the registrar's office denied a request by the Vernon Chamber of Commerce to disqualify 10 ballots in the June 5 council race. The registrar ruled there was not enough evidence to throw out the votes, which were all cast in favor of candidate Reno Bellamy, giving him a 34-30 victory.
But instead of certifying that result, Vernon's council members voted Tuesday for the city to conduct its own hearing on the election challenges. During the campaign, a majority on the council had supported Bellamy's opponent, Luz Martinez, who has worked as a secretary to Vernon's city administrator.
DISCUSS AT NOON: Corruption in Southeast L.A.
Dean Logan, the Los Angeles County registrar-recorder/county clerk, said he was surprised to see Vernon take such an action, especially given the city's professed efforts to reform itself after a series of public corruption scandals.
"The whole idea of the city moving toward an open and transparent election process was to be consistent … and this is arguably not consistent," Logan said after reviewing a copy of the city's new ordinance. "It certainly opens the city up to some more scrutiny now."
Fred MacFarlane, a Vernon spokesman, said the city's decision was motivated by its desire to hold an open hearing on the ballot challenges that would "remove all doubt over who is the proper elected candidate." Because of time constraints, the registrar's office reviewed only written evidence submitted by the Chamber of Commerce, MacFarlane said.
He confirmed that a hearing would be held before the election was finalized, but he was not sure of a date. The city is now looking to hire a "hearing officer" — likely a retired judge — who will consider the Chamber of Commerce's challenges, he said.
The Chamber of Commerce has argued that Vernon's voting rolls were stacked with more than a dozen people who did not actually live there. In its effort to disqualify ballots cast by some of those people, the organization has presented evidence that includes property and cellphone records and reports from private investigators.
Bellamy, however, maintains the individuals are lawful voters and said he has been "disgusted" by the city's handling of the election.
"To me it's unbelievable that we are in America and they are able to use the law to take control of what's supposed to be a democracy," he said. "They are making up the rules as they go."
Bellamy also alleged that Vernon used taxpayer dollars to fly one of the current councilmen, William Davis, back from his vacation in Italy so he could vote in favor of the new election ordinance, which passed, 3-0. When asked during Tuesday's council meeting whether the city funded his flight, Davis said, "I don't want to answer."
Rick Maisano, an ally of Bellamy's and the lone councilman who abstained from the vote, said he feared the change could expose Vernon to a civil rights lawsuit.
"How do you override the county on something like this?" he said. "It's amazing to me they're even trying it."
The election controversy comes during a tumultuous time in the industrial city south of downtown Los Angeles, which is home to more than 1,800 businesses but only about 100 residents.
Last month, the California state auditor released a lengthy report on financial issues in the city government, and called for Vernon to replace some of its top officials. The city has projected a $16-million deficit for next year, and some local business leaders have suggested it consider bankruptcy to get out of its bad investments.
On the same day the audit was released, Eric T. Fresch, a former top Vernon administrator, was found dead on Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay Area. Investigators have not announced the cause of his death.